‘Stateless’ review: Cate Blanchett’s immigration drama is a shallow offering

The Australian drama series streaming on Netflix plays out in the backdrop of an immigrant detention centre, but ends up being a ‘white narrative’ of a situation

July 17, 2020 12:30 pm | Updated 12:31 pm IST

Yvonne Strahovski in ‘Stateless’

Yvonne Strahovski in ‘Stateless’

Stateless is a paradox.

This isn’t necessarily a harsh critique of Netflix’s recent offering, an Australian drama series created and produced by Cate Blanchett. It is just that in the context of Black Lives Matter gaining global recognition, a ‘whitewashed’ presentation of Australia’s handling of refugees comes across as odd.

Stateless puts Australia’s controversial immigrant policies and its detention centres at the front and centre of its core plot (which is inspired from a true story), but the show remains content dovetailing the refugee point-of-view into storytelling perspectives dominated by its three white protagonists. The sole non-white protagonist is an Afghan refugee.

Jai Courtney (L) in a still from ‘Stateless’

Jai Courtney (L) in a still from ‘Stateless’

How the creators wind the show down is also an interesting study in paradox. All four leads represent the physical/mental state of being stateless, to be understood either in a literal or figurative context; however, it is only the Afghan refugee who sees no endgame. The others are afforded some sort of closure in the narrative.

Stateless is a slow-burner. The show follows the lives of four people: Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski), Claire Kowitz (Asher Keddie), Cam Sandford (Jai Courtney) and Fayssal Bazzi (Ameer).

Sofie is an airline stewardess, an Australian citizen, whose tryst with her unsupportive parents and a shady self-help group called GOPA (Dominic West, who goes creep times ten playing the sordid Gordon and Cate Blanchett as his ableist partner, Pat) lands her at the Barton detention centre for illegal immigrants in the Australian outback. She wants to leave Australia at any cost and, at first, believes being held at the detention centre could be a means to that end.

Fayssal Bazzi in a still from ‘Stateless’

Fayssal Bazzi in a still from ‘Stateless’

Claire is a career bureaucrat who is reassigned to manage the affairs at Barton. She has been through personal and professional upheavals, and sees Barton as a chance to put things right although her decisions seem to light more fuses than before.

Cam takes up the job as a guard at the detention centre because it pays well and could help him move out of a life of mediocrity. He is the ‘nice, white bloke’ whose time at the detention centre unleashes a previously unbeknownst ‘colonial oppressor’ streak in him, while Ameer, the Afghan refugee, is someone who, by virtue of cruel happenstance, loses his wife and younger child, gets separated from his older child, and ends up at the detention centre after going through much adversity to rid himself off the political conflict at his home.

There are other characters — like Rachel House’s Harriet, the mean enforcer at the detention centre, or Kate Box’s Janice, sometimes a lone ranger in her fight to take the refugees’ voice and plight beyond the tall fences they are trapped within — who even without much detailing or narrative scope, gently nudge the storyline forward.

Asher Keddie (R) in a still from ‘Stateless’

Asher Keddie (R) in a still from ‘Stateless’

As Sofie, a woman trapped inside the workings of her own mind and who is steadily falling off rails, Yvonne Strahovski delivers a compelling, nuanced performance.

Same goes for Jai Courtney, who oscillates between a man struggling to come to grips with what is wrong and right; one of the wrongs being dumping on a refugee family if it meant he could hold on to his family and luxuries. Courtney’s body language, too, which alternates between slouched shoulders and a macho stance indicative of his character’s mood swings deserves a nod.

The gripe with Stateless is that all said and done, the show ends up being a ‘white narrative’ of a situation that is least likely, or has yet to in any significant proportion, to affect a white person.

Quite why a viewer would feel more invested to know the turmoils Claire — who, political correctness be damned, is essentially the warden of a jail cell — goes through, without even the slightest acknowledgement of the racist rhetoric interlaced within several tiers of Australia’s administration, is beyond comprehension.

For a show that believed in centering a storyline in the backdrop of a refugee crisis, Stateless delivers a shallow, soft package.

Stateless is currently streaming on Netflix

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